Thursday, January 19, 2012

Conceptual Pessoa - no need to read him; just read about him

Everyone who writes about Fernando Pessoa spends too much time describing the heteronyms, his stable of invented poets who wrote real poems.  Critics and translators have trouble moving from the concept of Pessoa’s poetry to the poems themselves.  The English-language collections I have been reading include substantial supplementary prose, often by Pessoa (or Reis, or Campos), explaining or mystifying the different characters.   I include myself – see today, see yesterday, see, I would guess, tomorrow.  When, last spring, I spent several days writing about the poems of Alberto Caeiro while pretending that I did not know that he was an invention of Pessoa’s, I was in part trying to move away from the heteronyms and spend some time with the poems as poetry.

Alternately, writers spend, if anything, too little time on the nature of Campos and Reis and the dozens of other Pessoa names.  Readers skeptical of conceptual innovations might ask if there is any need to read any of the actual poems.  The concept of the poet-turned-dramatist, who creates a little universe of poets who know and write about each other, and who writes poems in their voices or from their aesthetic stance – is this idea not entirely graspable from its description?  Does it matter at all, for the concept to be useful, if the poems are any good, or if they exist at all?

By which I mean: a budding conceptual poet (or painter, or composer) could very well read about what Pessoa did and extend the idea into his own work without knowing a thing about what Pessoa wrote.  Why not attribute paintings in different styles to different imaginary painters, each with their own biography and aesthetic stance, why not invent critics to misunderstand the paintings?

Creating the artworks, the real poems by imaginary poets, is actually a different idea than simply positing their existence.  If nothing else, it makes the joke funnier.  I am thinking of a conceptual artist like Tom Friedman – imagining a self-portrait carved out of a single aspirin is funny, but creating such an object is even funnier (search for “bust”).

Although the writing of the poems was important for Pessoa, it is not at all clear how much their publication mattered.  It is unfortunately even less clear for me as I read the English collections of his work, since the translators are often vague about the wheres and whens of publication.  Am I reading something that Pessoa published in one of the literary magazines he helped found himself, or in someone else’s magazine, or is this one of the texts from the huge volume of unpublished manuscripts Pessoa left behind?

The Book of Disquiet, I remind myself, was not published until 45 years after Pessoa’s death.  Pessoa did publish a substantial amount of magazine writing, criticism and essays and poems, but he only finished  four books, all of them more like chapbooks:  two little collections of English poems – Pessoa had written poetry in English since he was a child - Antinous and 35 Sonnets, both appearing in 1917, another English-language collection in 1920, and a peculiar nationalistic mini-epic, Message, from 1934, which was “awarded a prize by the Ministry of national Propaganda, under very special circumstances” (Honig & Brown quoting Pessoa, p. 222).  Pessoa planned to publish a larger collection of his poems, but died in 1935, age 47.  His bibliography now resembles that of his contemporary Franz Kafka, a mix of the published and unpublished, the complete and incomplete, the public and private.

At some point I should try to get to the poems, and ignore or at least suppress the cloud of text that surrounds them.


  1. There are a few books in Portuguese by and about Pessoa that make him sound even more elusive.

    One is called Pessoa, the Entrepreneur and charts all his attempts at creating a publishing firm, a typography, a marketing agency for the Portuguese industry... all failed.

    The other, which I love, is a compilation of unfinished crime novels, or rather, short stories by Pessoa. They're very amusing and well done featuring a cigar smoking detective. He just couldn't bring himself to finish them properly. He questioned if he shouldn't have strived to publish these novels before he did his poems and saw them as intellectual adventures. The books you are reading probably refer to the fact that he loved Poe and Conan Doyle... (The Quaresma Decifrador stories have been translated into french and spanish.)

    Throw in the occult and astrology obsession, his famed alcoholism, his rather odd love life and... I have a very hard time imagining a Portuguese clerk in the early decades of the 20th century with such wide ranging interests and personality. He is such an implausible character himself that he gets us all sidetracked and losing sight of what matters which should be READING him!

  2. An entire series of unfinished detective stories? First, the Pessoa collections I have read make no mention of this. Second, in and of itself, that is a hilarious concept.

    The only point you mention that is truly useful to know about is Pessoa's interest in the occult, since it pops up in a few places in the poems.

    I might glance back at this tomorrow - because the funny thing is that "reading Pessoa" now includes so much "reading about Pessoa in texts written by Pessoa" - meaning his explanations of how the heteronyms work.

  3. The life of Fernando Pessoa is the strangest short-story Borges never wrote.

    I haven't read Quaresma yet, but they were only published a couple of years ago. It's a fucking expensive book, too; all FP books in Portuguese are.

  4. I feel like I've come to Pessoa in some accidentally clandestine, stealthy way, since I knew almost nothing about him prior to picking up The Book of Disquiet - so for me, the conceptuality is following my response to the text, not preceding it. Thus I'm finding those conceptual aspects less interesting than the rather stunning lyricism of some of the texts, not to mention the ideas within them. I guess what's most surprising to me is to find that he writes so splendidly, and that The BofD is not simply a strange book, but a quite extraordinarily beautiful one as well.

  5. You may find it hilarious but scholars are finding a proto Borges in them!'s+detective+writings.-a0188159483

    Heres an excerpt:

    I would like to attempt a systematization of the main reasons for the undeniable fascination of Fernando Pessoa for detective fiction: Firstly: the anti-mimetic and anti-expressive nature of this kind of literature. Detective fiction was an alternative to the abhorred romanticism and realism of most Portuguese literature of the beginning of the twentieth century.

    Secondly: the perception of the polymorphic and flexible nature of the genre, open to structural and discursive ramifications and possibilities. Much earlier than writers like Borges, Nabokov, Durrenmatt, Robbe-Grillet and others, Pessoa had understood how a 'fiction of certainty' might become a 'fiction of possibilities', as theorized by Stefano Tani. In 'O Caso Vargas', Pessoa offers a slight hint about this insight, while in 'A Arte de Raciocinar', Quaresma states:

    'Quem comete um crime [...] procura deixar o menor numero possivel de pistas [...] O caracter secreto do crime contribue para o que dele se observa seja imperfeitamente observado; o caracter interessante do crime tende a produzir testemunhos de natureza involuntariamente conjectural, pelos elementos e motivos que sugere.' (96)

    ['Whoever commits a crime [...] tries to leave as few clues as possible [...] The secret nature of crime means that what remains observable is only imperfectly observable; the interesting nature of crime tends to produce witnesses who are unintentionally conjectural, due to the elements and motives which it [the crime] suggests'.]

    This is not far from Umberto Eco's description of The Name of the Rose, in his Postscript, as a story of investigation and of conjecture, in which, he adds, the 'basic story (whodunnit) ramifies into [...] many other stories, all stories of other conjectures'. (97) In its denouement, the fictional universe of detective fiction is a territory open to a play on diversity or contradictory perspectives, versions, points of view, theories, discourses. It is, in short, the ideal form for a speculative mind like Pessoa's.

  6. A true disciple of Borges, I have no problem with a reader completing ignoring the heteronyms and reading everything Pessoa wrote as a regular old poem by a regular old poet. Read as if there were no heteronyms.

    More fun, though, would be to read both ways - as if I am reading Pessoa-himself, a poet writing poems, and as if I am reading this other construction of various poets, knowing full well that they are imaginary. And then why not also read as if the imaginary poets are real. I can do more than one thing at a time.

    The literary history of Pessoa, his influence, is a separate issue. There it is all about the heteronyms.

    Or, in summary: you may not be so interested in them now, seraillon, but the heteronyms are great fun.

    As Claudia suggests, through Eco, one story is turned into many stories; many into endless.

    Richard Zenith reports that Borges did not know of Pessoa's work, which is too bad. They might have gotten along well.